Blackmore 1st Woman to Win Grand National Horse Race

A Hollywood fantasy turned into reality Saturday when Rachael Blackmore became the first female jockey to win Britain’s grueling Grand National horse race, breaking one of the biggest gender barriers in sports. Blackmore, a 31-year-old Irishwoman, rode Minella Times to victory at odds of 11-1 in the 173rd edition of the famous steeplechase at Aintree in Liverpool, northwest England “I don’t feel male or female right now. I don’t even feel human,” Blackmore said. “This is just unbelievable.” Blackmore is the 20th female jockey to compete in a race that has been a mud-splattered British sporting institution since 1839. Women have been allowed to enter the National as jockeys since 1975. “I never even imagined I’d get a ride in this race, never mind get my hands on the trophy,” Blackmore said. In the 1944 Hollywood movie “National Velvet,” a 12-year-old girl, Velvet Brown — played by a young Elizabeth Taylor — won the Grand National on The Pie, a gelding she won in a raffle and decided to train for the world’s biggest horse race. In the story, Brown was later disqualified on a technicality, having dismounted before reaching the enclosure. Even though Aintree was without racegoers because of the coronavirus pandemic, cheers rang out as Blackmore made her way off the course — still aboard Minella Times — and into the winner’s enclosure. She looked as if she couldn’t believe what she had done. “For all the girls who watched ‘National Velvet’!” tweeted Hayley Turner, a former female jockey. “Thank you Rachael Blackmore, we’re so lucky to have you.” Blackmore, the daughter of a dairy farmer and a schoolteacher, grew up on a farm and rode ponies. She didn’t have a classic racing upbringing, which makes her ascent in the sport all the more inspirational. A professional jockey since 2015, she rode the second most winners in Irish jump racing in 2018-19, the same season she won her first races at the prestigious Cheltenham Festival. She was already the face of British and Irish horse racing before arriving at Aintree, having become the first woman to finish as the leading jockey at Cheltenham three weeks ago. Now she’s won the biggest race of them all, one that even non-horse racing enthusiasts turn on to watch and one that first captured Blackmore’s imagination. Indeed, her first memory of horse racing is going over to a friend’s house and taking part in a sweepstake for the National. A beaming Blackmore had special words for her parents, who “took me around the country riding ponies when I was younger.” “I can’t believe I am Rachael Blackmore. I still feel like that little kid — I just can’t believe I am me,” she said. “I hope it does help anyone who wants to be a jockey. I never thought this would be possible for me. I didn’t dream of making a career as a jockey because I never thought it could happen.” The previous best performance by a female jockey in the National was Katie Walsh’s third-place finish on Seabass in 2012. Minella Times went out as the fourth favorite of the 40 horses in a race run over 4 1/4 miles (6.4 kilometers) and features 30 big and often brutal fences. Minella Times was always near the front of the field, and Blackmore timed the horse’s run for glory to perfection, easing past long-time leader Jett with around three fences to jump. The famous, draining run to the line — about 500 meters from the last fence — was a procession as Minella Times won by 6 1/2 lengths. “He was just incredible and jumped beautifully,” Blackmore said. “I tried to wait as long as I could. When I jumped the last and asked him for a bit, he was there.” One of the other two female jockeys in the race, Bryony Frost, was taken to the hospital after being unseated from her horse, Yala Enki. The Long Mile was destroyed after suffering an injury while running between two of the fences. It was the second equine fatality since safety changes to the race were introduced in 2013.

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Turkey’s Erdogan Calls for End to ‘Worrying’ Developments in Eastern Ukraine, Offers Support

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Saturday called for the “worrying” developments in eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region to come to an end after meeting his Ukrainian counterpart in Istanbul, adding that Turkey was ready to provide any necessary support. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy held more than three hours of talks with Erdogan in Istanbul as part of a previously scheduled visit, amid tensions between Kyiv and Moscow over the conflict in Donbass. Kyiv has raised the alarm over a buildup of Russian forces near the border between Ukraine and Russia, and over a rise in violence along the line of contact separating Ukrainian troops and Russia-backed separatists in Donbass. The Russian military movements have fueled concerns that Moscow is preparing to send forces into Ukraine. The Kremlin denies its troops are a threat but says they will remain as long as it sees fit. The United States says Russia has amassed more troops on Ukraine’s eastern border than at any time since 2014, when it annexed Crimea from Ukraine and backed separatists in Donbass. On Friday, Turkey said Washington will send two warships to the Black Sea next week. Speaking at a news conference alongside Zelenskiy, Erdogan said he hoped the conflict would be resolved peacefully, through dialogue based on diplomatic customs, in line with international laws and Ukraine’s territorial integrity. “We hope for the worrying escalation observed on the field recently to end as soon as possible, the cease-fire to continue and for the conflict to be resolved via dialogue on the basis of the Minsk agreements,” Erdogan said. “We are ready to provide any support necessary for this.” Major combat in Donbass ended with a truce agreed to in the Belarusian capital Minsk in 2015, whose implementation France and Germany have helped to oversee. Sporadic fighting continues despite repeated attempts to implement a cease-fire. Zelenskiy said the positions of Kyiv and Ankara coincided on threats in the Black Sea and the response to those threats, and added he briefed Erdogan on the developments in Donbass. “We discussed in detail the issues of security and joint counteraction to challenges in the Black Sea region and it is worth noting that the visions of Kyiv and Ankara coincide both regarding the threats themselves and the ways of responding to these threats,” he said. NATO member Turkey has forged close cooperation with Russia over conflicts in Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as in the defense and energy areas. But it has criticized Crimea’s annexation and supported Ukraine’s territorial integrity. It also sold drones to Kyiv in 2019. Erdogan said on Saturday that Turkey and Ukraine launched a platform with their foreign and defense ministers to discuss defense industry cooperation but added this was “not in any way a move against third countries.” Ukraine and Russia have traded blame for the increase in violence in the conflict, which Kyiv says has killed 14,000 people since 2014. Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a call with Erdogan on Friday, accused Ukraine of “dangerous provocative actions” in Donbass. Kyiv said on Saturday Ukraine could be provoked by Russian aggravation of the situation in Donbass.

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Prince Charles Pays Tribute to ‘My Dear Papa,’ Prince Philip, for Devoted Service

Britain’s Prince Charles paid a personal tribute Saturday to his “dear papa” Prince Philip, saying the royal family missed him enormously and that the 99-year-old would have been amazed at the touching reaction around the world to his death. Philip, the husband of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth who had been at her side throughout her record-breaking 69-year reign, died at Windsor Castle on Friday. “As you can imagine, my family and I miss my father enormously,” Charles, the couple’s eldest son and heir to the throne, said outside his Highgrove House home in west England. “My dear papa was a very special person who I think above all else would have been amazed by the reaction and the touching things that have been said about him and from that point of view we are, my family, deeply grateful for all that. It will sustain us in this particular loss and at this particularly sad time.” Britain’s Prince Edward and Sophie, Countess of Wessex, leave Windsor Castle in their car following the death of Britain’s Prince Philip in Windsor, England, April 10, 2021.’Queen has been amazing’ Tributes have flooded in from across Britain and from world leaders for Philip, who was a pillar of strength for the queen. At 94, she is the world’s oldest and longest-reigning living monarch. Philip was a decorated sailor who fought in World War II and the armed forces marked his passing with artillery salutes with units in London, Edinburgh, Cardiff, Belfast and Gibraltar, and some navy warships, firing their guns. The royal family asked the public to heed social distancing rules and avoid visits to its residences, but people still laid cards and bouquets outside Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace. “It’s not something I’ve ever done before,” said Joanna Reesby, 60, who came to pay her respects at Buckingham Palace. “I brought yellow roses for friendship because I think that’s what he exhibited to everyone who came into his world.” The queen has lost her closest confidante. They had been married for 73 years and Philip would have turned 100 in June. Members of the family visited the grieving monarch at Windsor Castle. “The queen has been amazing,” said a tearful Sophie, the Countess of Wessex, as she left with her husband Prince Edward, the youngest son of Elizabeth and Philip. On its official Twitter feed, the royal family put up a tribute paid by the queen to her husband on their 50th wedding anniversary in 1997. “He has, quite simply, been my strength and stay all these years, and I, and his whole family, and this and many other countries, owe him a debt greater than he would ever claim, or we shall ever know,” she said. Flags at Buckingham Palace and at government buildings across Britain have been lowered to half-mast and billboard operators replaced advertisements with photographs and tributes to the prince. Sporting events observed silences in his honor.

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Russia Seen Advancing SE Asian Ambitions Through Myanmar Generals

Analysts say Russia is increasing arms sales to Myanmar’s military and steadfastly standing by Myanmar’s coup leader, General Min Aung Hlaing, an alliance they say will further Moscow’s foreign policy ambitions across Southeast Asia through future weapons sales.Meanwhile, leaders of at least 10 of ethnic rebel groups have declared their support for the country’s anti-coup movement.Anthony Davis, a security analyst with the Jane’s Group in Bangkok, said Moscow “very clearly” wants to further its ties with Myanmar’s military, known as Tatmadaw, through sales, primarily to its air force and, to a lesser extent, its army, while wanting to foster ties with Association of Southeast Asian Nations or ASEAN, a regional economic union.“Russia has established a strong beachhead not just in Myanmar but in Southeast Asia via Myanmar more generally,” he said, adding he was not surprised Russia and China were backing a proposed ASEAN summit on the crisis.“ASEAN is a body that they wish to have good relations and wish to influence in a way that is positive for them,” Davis said. “But I don’t think they have any more illusions about what ASEAN can achieve than is true of many states in the West.”ASEAN has long been criticized as unable to act in a crisis, with member country leaders often citing the trade bloc’s mantra of noninterference in neighbors’ internal affairs.Analysts said the 10 ASEAN members, largely one-party states and military-backed governments, deserved to be pilloried for their lack of moral backbone following the coup.“This is a very significant test for ASEAN for whether it’s able to deal with a significant crisis in its own backyard,” said Bradley Murg, a senior research fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace. “China actually reasonably wants a degree of stability here.”“Russia however will continue to be — when there is an authoritarian regime that pops up — Russia’s there to support it,” he said, adding that Russian media had trumpeted Moscow’s support for Hlaing as a defense of Myanmar democracy.“ASEAN essentially is muddled in dealing with the same problems it usually has which is it can’t achieve anything without consensus and it’s not going to achieve consensus,” he said regarding the bloodshed in Myanmar. “I’m not very optimistic, no,” he said.Military hardware is being displayed on Armed Forces Day, in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, March 27, 2021.Russian-made weaponsMurg said Russia was moving forward on new arms sales, which was highlighted by the presence of deputy defense minister Alexander Fomin at the annual Armed Forces Day parade in Naypyidaw March 27, following a visit by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu a week before the coup.“Bringing someone at the level of deputy minister of defense certainly signals that Russia’s there and Russia’s going to continue supporting the regime in Myanmar,” he said.On the night of the parade, Tatmadaw deployed airstrikes against ethnic Karen rebels, forcing more than 12,000 civilians to flee into the jungles on the Thai border, an attack that struck a nerve with the leaders of Myanmar’s roughly 20 ethnic insurgencies.General Yawd Serk, leader of one rebel group, the Restoration Council of Shan State, condemned the attacks after an online meeting of 10 rebel leaders promoting a united front against Tatmadaw, telling reporters that military generals must be held accountable.“I would like to state that the [10 groups] firmly stand with the people who are … demanding the end of dictatorship,” he told Agence France-Presse after the meeting.Analysts said the prospect that Russian-made weapons were being used against civilians had aggravated tensions and anti-Russian sentiment among protesters and insurgents — who had stuck a truce with the ousted government of Aung San Suu Kyi — alike.Davis said Russian-made Yak-130 fighter jets had been used by Tatmadaw in combat since 2019 and it was possible, they were used in the strikes on ethnic Karens, as they are designed for night attacks and are highly maneuverable at low altitude.“They have a history of this sort of operation. It would have made sense to use them again in this particular strike,” he said. “What took place on the night of 27th to the 28th of March suggests strongly that they were Yak-130s.”Ross Milosevic, a risk management consultant who conducts field research in Kayin State, also known as Karen State, said a variety of Russian-made air- and land-based weapons were also being used against civilians.That included attack helicopters and MiG jets, truck-mounted heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, which were being used to break up opposition roadblocks in Mandalay, Myanmar’s second-largest city.Milosevic said the military’s use of Russian and Chinese-made weapons had aggravated local sentiment and was leading to a consensus among insurgencies that a new deal needed to be struck with Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party to forge a united front against Tatmadaw.At the same time, he said underlying mistrust among the ethnic groups must be dealt with before a treaty can be struck, potentially with the backing of Western countries and a joint army set up from the ethnic militias.“Then involve the NLD (National League for Democracy) to provide a promise and a constitutional right of independence and autonomy for each individual ethnic state. I think you will find that they could all work together and push against Tatmadaw and the generals,” he said. 
 

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Costly Spanish Rescue of Tiny Airline Spotlights Political Divisions Over Venezuela

Plus Ultra was until recently a little-known airline with only four planes that shuttled passengers from a handful of Latin American countries to Spain.Now its name appears on an almost daily basis in the Spanish media after opposition political parties accused Spain’s leftist coalition government of giving it preferential treatment by granting it a $63 million bailout because it has links to Venezuela, whose government is considered by political sides in Spain as in need of change because of the failing economy and claims of human rights abuses.Plus Ultra, which connects Spain with Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela, was granted the cash in March by the Spanish government. The money comes from a $11.9 billion rescue fund created to help strategically important firms that have been hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.Spain’s centrist and conservative parties accused the Spanish government of favoring the small airline because Venezuelan businessmen own 47% of it.Unidas Podemos, the junior partner in the coalition, has links to the government in Caracas, Venezuela, because its leader, Pablo Iglesias, was an adviser to the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.The center-right People’s Party (PP) has demanded a parliamentary inquiry.“To get public money, companies must be affected by the pandemic and be strategically important to the Spanish economy, but this airline is 47% owned by Venezuelans and represents only 0.1% of the market,” Valentina Martinez, foreign affairs spokesperson for the PP, told VOA.“That is why we are asking for an investigation into this matter. We think it is more about the links between this government and Venezuela,” she said.Opposition parties dispute whether Plus Ultra is a strategic company, saying the airline does not figure among the top 30 Spanish airlines and has a market share of 0.1%.Critics have compared Plus Ultra with Air Europa, Spain’s second-largest airline.In 2019, Air Europa carried 19 million passengers on 165,000 flights, while in the same year, Plus Ultra made 800 flights and transported 156,000 people, according to figures from the state-run airport operator Aena.In November, Spain’s government offered $565 million to Air Europa, which had been badly hit by the pandemic.Spain’s centrist Ciudadanos (Citizens) party has urged the European Commission to open an inquiry, claiming that this misuse of public funds will not reflect well on Spain, which expects to receive $166.5 billion in the European Union rescue funds.“This is the moment when we need to be solvent and serious, with our financial affairs, but our government has spent $63 million on an airline which flies to four destinations, has had losses almost since it started and has a market share of 0.1%,” Ines Arrimadas, Ciudadanos party leader, said in a speech in parliament.The far-right Vox party, which is the third largest in the Spanish parliament, has filed a complaint with the Supreme Court, claiming this amounted to misuse of public funds, which the government denies.El Mundo, a conservative newspaper that has carried a series of stories about Plus Ultra, reported Friday that between 2014 and 2016, the airline negotiated its sale for $3.4 million — about 21 times less than the $74.9 million in state aid it was granted.Spain’s government defended the award of the public money to rescue Plus Ultra.“It’s not only market share that makes a company strategic but belonging to a sector that is strategic within the Spanish economy, such as tourism,” Spanish government spokesperson Maria Jesus Montero told RNE public radio on Wednesday.Montero insisted the rescue plan had been correctly carried out.Spain’s Treasury Minister said in a statement that Plus Ultra offered a service that complemented larger companies and the airline’s passengers were mostly Latin Americans traveling to visit their family.By paying financial aid to Plus Ultra, it would promote Adolfo Suarez Madrid-Barajas Airport as an international hub, the statement added.Plus Ultra declined to comment when approached by VOA.The Venezuelan government has dismissed the affair.“All of this is politics. When I read about the affairs of the Spanish, I laugh a lot. When we kill a cockroach here, it is on Spain’s front pages the following day,” Jorge Arreaza, the Venezuelan foreign minister, told Agence France-Presse, the French news agency.

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US, Allies Question Moscow’s Motives Near Ukraine

The United States is accusing Russia of hiding the true intent of its military buildup along the border with Ukraine following consultations with allies about heightening tensions in the region.U.S. officials declined Friday to share specifics on the number or types of Russian forces they have seen massing near Ukrainian territory. But they described Moscow’s actions as both provocative and destabilizing, rejecting assertions that any movement has been tied to simple military exercises.FILE – Pentagon spokesman John Kirby speaks to reporters Feb. 17, 2021.”We don’t think that the Russians have been totally transparent about what they’re doing,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters Friday.”It is a big buildup … the biggest one that we’ve seen since 2014,” he said, noting that similar previous buildups of Russian military force have not ended well for Moscow’s neighbors.”It’s a history, a way of operating that we’ve seen from the Russians in many places, and we are certainly aware of that history,” Kirby said, referencing Russia’s seizure and annexation of Crimea in 2014.”That’s one of the reasons why we’re watching this very, very closely,” he said.At the White House, press secretary Jen Psaki said the U.S. was busy working with partners and allies to assess the situation and what can be done to lower tensions.”There’s ongoing diplomatic engagement between us and a number of countries in the region, including Russia,” she said.Psaki declined to elaborate on the diplomatic efforts, but Germany and France added their voices to the chorus of countries seeking to get Moscow to back down.”#Russia must de-escalate & act transparently with regard to its troop movements,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said on Twitter, following talks with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. “Together with our #EU & #NATO partners we will monitor further steps closely.”FM U.S. missile destroyer USS Donald Cook is docked in the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Odessa, Feb. 25, 2019.In the meantime, Russia’s deputy foreign minister appeared to raise concern over reports the U.S. is sending two warships to the Black Sea in a show of support for Ukraine.”The number of visits by NATO countries and the length of the stay of (their) warships have increased,” he told Russia’s Interfax news agency.Turkish officials said Friday that the U.S. would be sending two ships to the Black Sea next week (April 14-15) and that they would remain there for approximately two weeks.U.S. defense officials declined to confirm the Turkish statement but said such operations are routine.”We routinely operate in the Black Sea,” Kirby told reporters at the Pentagon.”We will fly, sail and operate wherever international law permits us to do so. That’s what this is about, and, clearly, we take our obligations throughout the European area of operations very, very seriously,” he added.Earlier this week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy urged NATO to allow the country to join the alliance to send Moscow a message and end fighting in the Donbas region, where Russian-backed separatists have been battling with Ukrainian forces since Russian annexed Crimea in 2014.Information from Reuters was used in this report.

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Lockdown Protests Snowball as Europe’s Libertarians Fret About Freedom

On the streets of Rome, frustrations with pandemic curbs boiled over this week as desperate protesters, many of them restaurant owners and small-business owners, complained that restrictions and repeated lockdowns aimed at suppressing the transmission of the coronavirus are ruining them. “We can no longer go on like this,” 51-year-old pizzeria owner Ermes Ferrari told reporters. “I just want to work.”Outside the parliament in the Italian capital, protesters Tuesday called for an immediate end to Italy’s grinding lockdown. At one point they clashed with riot police. The protesters chanted repeatedly, “Libertà, Libertà.”  Many of the protesters, who emphasized they are not COVID-19 deniers, are members of the burgeoning “I’m Opening” movement of bar and restaurant owners, who defy curbs, break rules and incur hefty fines for doing so.”I had to spend €10,000 to adapt the pizzeria so that it was in accord with virus safety precautions, then the government made us close down. It’s shameful. I have no more money left. My employees don’t have money to eat,” Ferrari told the Corriere della Sera newspaper. FILE – People take part in a protest against coronavirus vaccination and restrictions in Belgrade, Serbia, April 3, 2021.Italians aren’t the only Europeans expressing frustration with financially ruinous and freedom-restricting curbs — nor are they alone in demanding to be unshackled, despite rising infections. In recent weeks, protests have snowballed with pandemic demonstrations mounted in Austria, Britain, Finland, Romania, Switzerland, Poland, France, Bulgaria, Serbia, the Netherlands and Romania.  German police last month resorted to using water cannons, pepper spray and batons on protesters railing against the coronavirus lockdown in the town of Kassel in central Germany, where demonstrators numbered around 20,000.  FILE – Demonstrators attend a protest against the government’s coronavirus restrictions in Kassel, Germany, March 20, 2021.In many countries, anti-lockdown anger has merged with other grievances — in Britain with rage over the abduction and death of a 33-year-old woman allegedly at the hands of a serving police officer, who has been charged with her murder. In several countries, demonstrators inveighed against governments suspending the right to protest because of the public health crisis. A bungled vaccine rollout across most of Europe has added to the groundswell of impatience and exasperation. Economic hardship and anxiety are fueling anger. In Italy, families say they worry about whether they will have jobs soon. Some economists are predicting more than a million Italian workers could find themselves jobless when the government finally ends subsidized furloughs. Far-right and far-left groups have been quick to seize on public frustration, say politicians and analysts. A protest in Bucharest last month, where a mask-less crowd honked horns and waved national flags and demanded “Freedom,” was backed by Romania’s far-right AUR party.  FILE – People protesting the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions march in downtown Bucharest, Romania, March 29, 2021.But while majorities in European countries have supported tough pandemic restrictions, according to opinion polls, sizable minorities across the political spectrum are expressing rising alarm about the prolonging of severe measures. And protests, like the demonstration this week in Rome, have drawn support from ordinary people unaffiliated with fringe political groups, note analysts. Some protesters in recent weeks have said they aren’t only worried about the “now,” but also about reclaiming basic freedoms once the immediate public health crisis subsides. They fear governments may be less willing to relinquish powers they have accrued to themselves during the pandemic.  It is a worry libertarians and rights activists are increasingly highlighting, citing how post-9/11 anti-terrorism laws and more intrusive state surveillance has become a permanent feature in many states long after the terror threat diminished.  They fear the balance of power between the state and individuals has been upended and bewail governments navigating the pandemic with what they argue has been heavy-handed state coercion. They underscore the pandemic may have taught governments that in order to feel safe, the majority of people in European countries are willing to put up with greater sacrifices of liberty than previously thought. “Those of us who value liberty more highly and who have a higher appetite for public risk need to appreciate the precedent that has been set,” says Daniel Finkelstein, a former Downing Street adviser and now a columnist for The Times of London.  “Ensuring that the powers the government has granted itself are abolished rather than kept for a future occasion is going to be hard political work. As is ensuring that we set the bar very high for renewing such powers in the future,” he wrote recently. FILE – Members of the public receive a dose of the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine at a coronavirus vaccination center at the Fazl Mosque in southwest London, March 23, 2021.In Britain, which is much further along than other European countries with mass vaccinations, and next week starts easing a lockdown, the debate over civil liberties is becoming especially heated and is focusing on the possibility of vaccine passports being introduced for both domestic activities and foreign travel.  British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is facing a rebellion within his party over the issue of vaccine passports with more than 60 members of the ruling Conservative party saying they are opposed and have warned that they will rebel and vote against a soon-to-be-introduced measure extending until September emergency COVID-19 legislation.   Senior Conservative lawmaker Steven Baker said he plans to vote against an extension of emergency powers and emphasizes the vote “will present a rare opportunity for members of parliament to say no to a new way of life in a checkpoint society, under extreme police powers, that we would not have recognized at the beginning of last year.” 
 

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World Leaders Offer Tributes to Britain’s Prince Philip

Tributes have been offered from around the world to Prince Philip, the husband of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth, who died Friday at the age of 99. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

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